The first time I tried sherry, I didn’t like it. It was a manzanilla. I was studying to be a sommelier, and we were studying all types of wine. Now I love it, especially in cocktails. Everyone’s tastes can change - it’s important to be aware of this. Sherry can taste completely different at a different time in a different place. Your enjoyment depends on the company - it is influenced by the person you’re with. I’ve been to Spain five times - it’s a whole other experience to taste sherry at the bodega where it’s made, and with great guidance. The people who share the most passion about their project draw the sherry with the venencia, and pour it for you, and you taste it, and the flor is alive. You can’t really top that.
1) KEEP IT SMALL
One of the most impactful types of any encounter are smaller and more personal, as opposed to something large. The ideal number is as if you were hosting a dinner party - say 10-15 people. Nothing overwhelming, something where you can engage in conversation with other folk: you’re throwing ideas around, and your audience is not just being lectured to from a stage. I like more of a personal vibe, so we can talk about why we love sherry, try different food pairings and see the reactions: “Oh, that’s amazing!”, or “I think this one works better”. The conversation needs to flow, and for that, you need a small group.
2) COCKTAIL HOUR
I lead off with a light, refreshing sherry cocktail to set the mood – chatty and conversational. It’s usually manzanilla or fino-based, but, could be with amontillado. Something simple like a Cheribita – sherry over ice with orange bitters and lemon peel, which gives you that note of citrus. You could also incorporate bubbles – try amontillado, orange or aromatic bitters, cava and orange peel, for an easy delicious riff. It’s a great way to start!
3) LISTEN AND TASTE
I will always give a half-hour overview of how sherry is made. Obviously, this depends on the guests and their level of knowledge. You need stop quite often, so that you’re not just talking, but you’re asking questions too. Make sure that while you’re explaining, your clients have a glass of manzanilla in hand – don’t withhold the sherry! - so that the sensory (taste/sight/smell) and audible are merged together. They can see the pale straw colour of fino, smell the yeast, and taste the almonds, as you’re telling them about how the sherry is made.
4) FROM NEWBIES TO OLD HANDS
It’s always a mixed bag of people – those who know about sherry, along with those who don’t. I am constantly introducing people to sherry for the first time - it’s great, I love it! It’s something that I do all the time at my bar, always when I hold tastings and classes. And then there are also people who have tried it before and are very excited, and say, “Yes I do love sherry, and I’m so glad to come to your bar and see what kind of sherry you’re offering”. And others come in and say, “Oh, are you using sherry in cocktails? It hadn’t occurred to me!”
5) PICK YOUR TUNES
Music is always helpful to create the right ambience – it makes everything flow better, especially for a crowd who are tasting sherry for the first time. It’s very personal, so as the host I pick what I think will work best, depending on the mood. Perhaps something a little cheesy, or a little background. I have a soft spot for 1980s pop, or it could be a mish-mash - indie bands, ballads, classical, jazz. I’ve never done a tasting with live music, but a string quartet might be nice.
6) KEEP ON MOVING
Personally, if it’s in my own bar, I will spend some time sitting at the table with people. But I also walk around - as I don’t have a very strong voice, it’s helpful for me to move between groups, so that I’m not just in one spot and everyone can hear me. It’s fine when you have a small crowd. If someone hires me to conduct a tasting in their restaurant, however, I probably won’t sit down with the clients.
7) FOUR AT LEAST
The number of sherries we taste depends on the type of tasting – whether everyone is very familiar with sherry or not. I always have at least four sherries – a fino, a manzanilla, an amontillado, and an oloroso. You can tell them that afterwards, it gets even sweeter - PX, cream – to counter the common misconception that all sherry is sweet. Yes, there is sweet sherry, but there’s this other stuff that is driving sherry production, and which goes incredibly well with food.
8) MENU MASTERY
For a shorter tasting - an hour, or an hour and a half – we’ll have light snacks, such as olives, almonds and cheese. If it’s two hours, then we’ll need more substantial pairings from kitchen. I’m a huge fan of Asian cuisine - I love fermented and pickled food. Pickled vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and cucumber are great as appetizers with manzanilla, or a light, medium- sweet amontillado. When I can, I like to incorporate something like ramen in pork stock. This has a lovely rich flavour which doesn’t go well with wine, but with an oxidative style sherry - oloroso, palo cortado, or amontillado - it’s a treat! Depending on where you are, what state you’re in, you can get great local cheeses here in the US. I mostly use cow or sheep’s milk cheese, or sometimes goat, but that has a stronger flavour. I use cheeses which are served in many restaurants around here, as it’s nice for people to say, “Ah, I know that cheese, I’ve had that”, but here they have it with sherry, instead of what they usually drink, and that’s something else. For a dessert, raspberries and moscatel go beautifully together.
9) BE WELL-INFORMED
These days so many people have dietary restrictions or allergies, so you always need a good mix of snacks – not just ham, but olives, nuts, different cheeses, gluten-free crackers. It’s really important to ask the people who are coming if they have any limitations or allergies, so you don’t get caught out on the night, and you’re well prepared. Whether you’re selling tickets or inviting people over, tell them that you’re creating pairings, and to let you know in advance about any so you can plan accordingly. You want everyone to have the same good experience that you’ve curated.
10) TAKE YOUR PARTNER
It’s great to have someone else to bounce ideas off, and infect each other with your enthusiasm! For Sherry Week last year, a friend and colleague who owns two restaurants here in DC and I decided to do an event on a Sunday afternoon - tea, cocktails, crafts and bingo! When you got a full row on your bingo card, you had to drink a lemongrass tea, or an amontillado cocktail, or draw your best friend. People loved it! With someone else, we did sherry and dumplings – they were all different colours. And for another, I asked sommeliers from local bars to tell me their three favourite sherries, to do “Sherry Mixtapes”. Clients could try each flight, to see which they preferred.
For this year’s Sherry Week, I’m doing a venencia competition, with teams from the same bars and restaurants pouring from a barrel – they’ll be marked on style, technical ability and timing (they also organize their own events too). And I’m organising a blind sherry tasting/blind date event.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of El Consejo Regulador.
14 October 2019